Austrian Town Wonders What to Do with Hitler's Home

A debate has erupted in the tiny Austrian town of Braunau over what to do with the building where Adolf Hitler was born. The mayor said last week he wants it to become residential apartments, but many would like to see a memorial instead. The property has been vacant for over a year.

The building, for the moment, is empty. Most recently, it was used as a workshop operated by a charitable organization for disabled people. But the group moved out a year ago and since then little has happened at Salzburger Vorstadt 15.

This week, thought, the site has found itself at the center of a heated debate over its future. The structure, after all, is located in the tiny town of Braunau am Inn on Austria's border with Germany. And it is the place where Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889.

The back-and-forth was triggered last week when the mayor of Braunau, Johannes Waidbacher, hinted in an interview with the Austrian daily Der Standard that he was in favor of using the property merely as a residential building. "It would certainly be easier to transform the site into apartments," he said.

Waidbacher didn't stop there. Saying he was "open to many ideas," he added: "One should also ask the question in general as to whether a further Holocaust memorial makes sense when there are already so many in the area. We are stigmatized anyway. Hitler spent the first three years of his life here in our city. And it most certainly was not the most formative phase of his life. As such, we in Braunau are not prepared to take responsibility for the outbreak of World War II."

Waidbacher's comments, perhaps unsurprisingly, were not universally well received. Local politicians have since demanded that the site be transformed into some kind of memorial and the reaction from overseas has also made it clear that simply ignoring the building's history would not go over well.

'A Difficult Topic' Indeed, the backlash has been such that Waidbacher has since backed away from his preference for transforming the building into an apartment complex. He told the German daily Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung this week that "there will ultimately be a proposal that everyone involved can accept," allowing that it was "a difficult topic."

For years, it was an easy topic to ignore. The building, privately owned, is rented by the Austrian Interior Ministry and sublet to the town of Braunau. Given Hitler's systematic murder of handicapped people during the Third Reich, many felt it appropriate that his birthplace be devoted to helping the disabled. There seemed little need to launch a discussion about transforming the three-story structure into a museum.

Now that the facility has moved out, however, many are turning to a proposal made several years ago by local historian Andreas Maislinger, who helped found the Braunau Society for Contemporary History in 1993. In 2000, he submitted a plan to establish what he calls a "House of Responsibility" at the site. He envisions a historical exhibition in combination with a social services facility and projects to promote intercultural understanding.

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